The Letters of a Persian Satrap

Christopher Tuplin

In the early 1930s the Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt acquired a small cache of material from an unidentified source. Borchardt was famous for discovering the statue of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti (c. 1370–1330 BC) that nowadays graces Berlin’s Neues Museum. His new acquisition lacked Nefertiti’s allure but was nonetheless remarkable.

The bust of Queen Nefertiti (Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany).

It consisted of two leather bags, eight bullae (pieces of clay carrying the impression of a seal) and numerous Aramaic letters, and each component was extraordinary. Contemporary leather objects were known from Elephantine (an island in the River Nile), including a bag – but not one identifiable as a document case. Seven of the bullae bear the impression of an inscribed seal that is a masterpiece of Achaemenid engraving. And the letters were written on leather – something then without contemporary parallel – and personally linked to a high-ranking Persian.

Nor was this just any high-ranking Persian. He was Aršāma, “son of the house” (royal prince), a man already known as a fifth-century satrap of Egypt from ten Elephantine documents published in 1911. Of these the most celebrated was a letter reporting Aršāma’s receipt of a message from Darius II about Passover celebrations at Elephantine, but there were others both about the Judaean community (particularly the destruction of their temple in 410) and about the collection and disbursement of official resources, notably on the repair of a boat for which meticulously detailed instructions were issued by the satrap. But here too Borchardt’s material was different: the Elephantine documents reflected Aršāma’s position as satrap, but the new ones were about the affairs of his personal estate.

The bags, bullae and documents remained with Borchardt until his death and his widow subsequently sold them to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England. The first publication by Godfrey Driver in 1954 provided photographs of bags and bullae as well as documents, but Driver was only interested in the texts, and that focus characterised later scholarship. The situation has now been partially redressed in C.J. Tuplin and J.Ma (eds.), Aršāma and his World: the Bodleian Letters in Context (Oxford UP, 2020), which includes not only republication of the letters (with new photographs and extensive commentary) but also the first thorough description and evaluation of the bullae. Unfortunately, further study of the bags is impossible without extensive conservation work: that has so far been impossible, so there is still a loose end.

A well-preserved impression of the seal of Aršāma (© Bodleian Library, Oxford).
A collated drawing of the Aršāma seal (© M.B.Garrison).

Why should Classicists care? Aršāma is not prominent in Classical texts (there are two allusions in Ctesias’ early fourth-century Persian history, both of which garble his name) and the letters say nothing about Greeks. One answer is that the Achaemenid Empire and Egypt were intimately connected with the Greek world and that anything concerning them should interest Classicists. But that is too general a proposition to invite more than theoretical assent. Better, perhaps, to note some things that hook the material more specifically to Greek texts.

A letter that speaks of “treasure” travelling from Egypt to Babylon echoes the journey of silver from province to heartland in the account of the Persian tribute system provided by the fifth-century historian Herodotus. Use of leather as a writing material is mentioned by Herodotus and Ctesias. Aramaic is what Greeks meant when they spoke of Persians using Assyria grammata (“Assyrian letters”): it was in fact the language that most characteristically facilitated long-distance communication in the imperial bureaucracy.

Long-distance communication is evoked in Herodotus’ description of the Royal Road and in his and others’ stories about the management of travel along such roads. One of the Bodleian Letters speaks very directly to this: Aršāma writes to officials in Mesopotamia and Syria ordering the provision of food and drink to his estate-bailiff Nakhtḥor on a journey from Babylonia to Egypt. A daily ration is specified and will not be provided unless Nakhtḥor keeps moving: there is to be no dawdling. The disbursement of food to accredited travellers is indirectly attested in hundreds of memoranda in an administrative archive discovered at Persepolis in 1933 (the Persepolis Fortification archive), but Aršāma’s letter is the only surviving example of the sort of accreditation those travellers presented at official supply-depots along their route. And Greeks too experienced this system: when Histiaeus hurried west with Darius’ blessing to sort out the Ionian revolt or Alcibiades set off to tell King Artaxerxes about a plot against his throne (only to be murdered en route), they were surely carrying just such documents, issued respectively by Darius himself and the satrap of Paphlagonia.

Aršāma authorizes Nakhtḥor’s travel-rations  (© Bodleian Library, Oxford).

Sentimental readers of Herodotus will remember that Darius I had a favourite wife, Artystone: she bore him a son called Arsames (who commanded the Arabian-Ethiopian contingent in 480 BC) and Darius commissioned a statue of her in beaten gold. We now know that the “Aršāma son of the house” named on seven of the eight Bodleian bullae is actually this Arsames and not the like-named satrap of Egypt. We know this because the seal that produced those bullae was used in 490s Persepolis on documents emanating from the son of Darius and his mother. The bullae thus provide a physical link to the contents of Herodotus’ Persian Army list, and it becomes understandable that the seal that made them was so fine – a seal fit for a king’s son.

And there is more. The satrap Aršāma not only inherited a splendid artwork but also commissioned artworks. One of his letters orders ration-payments for an “image-maker” called Ḥinzani who was making various images, including horses and horsemen. This is some way from the beaten-gold statue of a Persian queen. But Ḥinzani was operating within the household of a royal prince (perhaps as one of several creatives under his control) and that situation echoes the personal nature of Darius’ commission.

Of course, non-Greek evidence does not exist simply to illustrate Greek texts, and much of the joy of the Bodleian Letters is where they exceed the latter’s reach. Greek awareness of the estates of Persian satraps is pallid compared with a letter revealing the acquisitiveness of a satrap for whom disorder was an opportunity for the bailiff to round up extra workers: “bring them into my courtyard, mark them with my brand and make them over to my estate.” Nakhtḥor fell short in this task, which earned a fierce rebuke, with threats of “forceful questioning” and a “severe sentence”, and Aršāma was not the only person who had problems with Nakhtḥor: another estate-owner Virafša wrote to him about three occasions on which he has allegedly taken property belonging to Virafša or his wife.

Virafša complains about Nakhtḥor’s misbehaviour  (© Bodleian Library, Oxford).

These are not the only vivid vignettes of the life of a satrapal estate: we also encounter, for example, the eight slaves of an earlier bailiff who fled with stolen property and must be punished, the thirteen Cilician slaves assigned to Aršāma’s domain who were accidentally trapped in a rebel stronghold called Miṣpeh but who can return to work and are not to be punished, or the Lycian troop-commander who annoyed the bailiff Psamšek and, like Nakhtḥor, faced “forceful questioning” and a “severe sentence”. The existence of this standardised terminology (still found in Aramaic letters from Bactria three generations later) speaks volumes about management methods and bureaucratic linguistics – another theme that is a closed book to Greek authors and for which the Bodleian Letters are a rich resource.

Finally, back to the seal of Aršāma, son of Darius and (perhaps) grandfather of the satrap. It depicts a Persian fighting a Scythian adversary and is an early and grand example of a theme – Persians in victorious combat with human adversaries – represented on a substantial number of Achaemenid-era seals of varied date and style. The adversaries are generally Scythians (as here) or Greeks or occasionally Egyptians, and the icon represents the empire’s vigorous control at the peripheries of a realm whose heart is purportedly too peaceful for a need for combat to arise.

Another well-preserved impression of the seal of Aršāma (© Bodleian Library, Oxford).

Classicists may warm to the idea that Greeks were important enough in the Achaemenid imagination to play this ideological role, even if they are as firmly on the losing side as are Persians when Greek vase-painters depict similar combats in their own ideological setting. A satrap in Egypt should perhaps have had the Greek or Egyptian version of the icon on his seal. But the seal was an heirloom, and that had an ideological (and perhaps affective) significance as well.

And seals mattered, which is also something that Greek authors knew. When Bagaeus visited Sardis to eliminate the rebel satrap Oroetes in or around 521 BC, Herodotus carefully notes that the letters he carried were sealed with Darius’ seal, and, when Artaxerxes dictated the political map of the Aegean and West Anatolian world in the so-called King’s Peace (387 BC), his emissary displayed the King’s seal before reading his terse message. It is not the least remarkable thing about Borchardt’s little treasure trove that it contained not only Aršāma’s letters but also the seal impressions that authenticated and enhanced their authority.

Christopher Tuplin is Gladstone Professor of Greek at the University of Liverpool. His main areas of research are Classical Greek historiography (with a special focus on Xenophon) and the Achaemenid Persian Empire.

Further Reading

The Bodleian material was first published in G.R. Driver, Aramaic Documents of the Fifth Century (Oxford UP, 1954); an abridged and revised edition was produced by the Oxford Clarendon Press (under the same title) in 1965. A fresh and improved edition of the texts by B. Porten and A. Yardeni appeared in the context of their magisterial re-examination of all Aramaic texts from Egypt: Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt I-IV (Hebrew Univ., Jerusalem, 1986–99): see I 102–29, IV 138–50 and 230. The Aramaic material from Elephantine associated with Aršāma can also be found in this publication (I 54–7,62–5,68–79,94–101).

The fullest presentation of the Bodleian Letters is in Aršāma and his World: The Bodleian Letters in Context (Oxford UP, 2020), a three-volume work edited by Christopher Tuplin and John Ma comprising contributions by twenty-one authors.[1] Volume I (The Bodleian Letters) provides a text and translation of the letters that survive in more than an utterly fragmentary form, together with a glossary and extensive commentary. The volume also contains text and translation (with briefer commentary) of the Egyptian (Demotic) and Akkadian documents relating to Aršāma and two sets of photographs of the Aramaic letters. Volume II (Bullae and Seals) publishes the bullae for the first time (with full description and photographic coverage) and provides a wide-ranging artistic, iconographic and historical discussion of the seals used to make them. Volume III (Aršāma’s World) starts with an overview of Aršāma and the textual material (Aramaic, Demotic Egyptian, Old Persian, Akkadian and Greek) associated with him and then addresses wider historical contexts in fifteen essays grouped under four broad headings: Letters and Administration, Control and Connectivity, Economic, and Egyptian Perspectives.[2]

For a brief overview of the Persepolis Fortification archive, see W.F.M. Henkelman, “Administrative realities: the Persepolis Archives and the Archaeology of the Achaemenid heartland,” in D.T. Potts (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Ancient Iran (Oxford UP, 2013), 528–46 or W.F.M. Henkelman, “Local administration: Persia,” forthcoming in B. Jacobs & R. Rollinger (eds.), A Companion to the Achaemenid Persian Empire (Blackwell-Wiley, Chichester/New York).

The fourth-century Aramaic documents from Bactria, written on leather and displaying other interesting analogies with the Bodleian Letters, are published in J. Naveh & S. Shaked (eds.), Aramaic Documents from Ancient Bactria (Khalili Family Trust, London, 2012).

For more on Persians fighting Scythian, Greek, Egyptian and other adversaries on seal stones, see C.J. Tuplin “Sigillography and soldiers: cataloguing military activity on Achaemenid period seals,” in E. Dusinberre, M. Garrison & W.F.M. Henkelman (eds.), The Art of Empire in Achaemenid Persia. Studies in Honour of Margaret Cool Root (Peeters, Leuven, 2020), 329–459.


1 L. Allen, E. Almagor, A. Bresson, L. Fried, M. Garrison, G.G ranerød, W.F.M. Henkelman, J. Hilder, J. Hyland, D. Kaptan, A.P. Keaveney, A. Kuhrt, J. Ma, C.J. Martin, R. Pirngruber, H.S. Smith, D.G.K. Taylor, J. Tavernier, D.J. Thompson, C.J. Tuplin, G. Vittmann.
2 This publication is the final outcome of an AHRC-funded Research Network, Communication, Language and Power in the Achaemenid Empire: The Correspondence of the Satrap Arshama, which ran in Oxford through the academic year 2010–11, involving language classes, five workshops, a public lecture, a three-day conference and a small exhibition at the Bodleian Library. Without AHRC support none of this would have been possible.